The contest over who should be the Indiana superintendent of public instruction is usually one of those ballot entries voters barely pay attention to. Most of them instinctively know the position should be appointive rather than elective in the first place, the better for governor and superintendent to coordinate education policy. Why waste a lot of intellectual interest in such a race?
But it’s different this year. The Department of Public Instruction under Republican Superintendent Tony Bennett has pushed through the General Assembly the most aggressive, far-reaching school reform package in the nation. So those invested in the status quo ante are more upset here than anywhere else. That means the whole nation will be watching the faceoff between Bennett and Democratic challenger Glenda Ritz to see what voters think of the reforms.
As an Associated Press analysis puts it: This “traditionally sleepy race” has turned into “a referendum on education policies that are endorsed by conservatives across the country.”
A vote for Bennett gives a nod of encouragement to all the performance and accountability measures during the tenure of Bennett and Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels: programs that give parents more choice, such as charter public schools and a voucher program permitting public money to be used at private schools; tougher standards for measuring the effectiveness of teachers and schools; a system that ties teacher pay to student performance and limits what unions can bargain for.
A vote for Ritz is a vote either for different reforms or no reforms at all, depending on which side of the fence you’re on. She would give more authority to teachers, who feel under assault by a state that unfairly blames them for all of public education’s failings. She would probably ease back on accountability standards, which would be bad, but cede more control to local school boards, which could be good.
We have our own opinion. Public education has been lacking, so there must be reforms. Whether these particular reforms are the right ones remains to be seen, but that’s the point. Reforms should be pursued and studied until we know if they are working. Abandoning reform efforts before they even take hold because the stakeholders are upset by change would be foolish and wasteful.
Perhaps you have a different idea. If so, vote accordingly. But you must pay attention this year more than ever and try to vote for the right person for the right reasons. For one thing, you’re paying the bills. For another, the future of our children is at stake.